“Whatever shadow may fall on your life–maybe you are worried about the fate of your country, or perhaps dark thoughts visit you concerning your own future, or maybe your entire life seems an unbearable wound–remember the fairy tale. Listen to her quiet, ancient, wise voice.” 1
These, perhaps surprising, words were spoken by a Russian philosopher named Ivan Ilyin, speaking to an audience of Russians in Germany in 1934. His world had fallen apart already, his country overwhelmed by the communists, and he was about to witness the worst slaughter ever inflicted by man upon fellow man.
And yet, where did he find his consolation? Did he find it where everyone else seemed to be looking for it–in the false promises of politics? Did he seek it perhaps in the new prophets and saints of the modern age–the scientists in their ivory towers? No! For some reason, this man, one of the most educated men of his time, found his consolation in the simple, some would say childish, fairy tale.
“Don’t think the fairy tale is a childish diversion, not worthy of the attention of a grown man. And don’t think that adults are smart, and children stupid. Don’t imagine that an adult has to ‘stupefy’ himself to tell a story to a child. Is it not perhaps the opposite? Aren’t our minds the source of most of our woes? And what is stupidity, anyway? Is all stupidity dangerous or shameful? Or is there perhaps an intelligent kind of stupidity, or better yet, simplicity… something desirable and blessed that begins with stupidity but ends with wisdom? 2
Socrates said, “all I know is that I know nothing.” Socrates, after so many centuries, is still revered as possibly the greatest philosopher of all time. And yet, so many of us do not listen to his difficult truth. We are convinced, whether we realize it or not, that our minds can contain the universe. That science can help us understand the mysteries of life, that a thorough training of our minds can make us masters of our own existence.
Well, if we’re paying attention, we’re seeing the reckoning of that worldview right now. It is precisely the scientific worldview that is producing widespread panic because of COVID-19, panic the likes of which humanity has never seen. It is the scientists that can’t decide on a mortality rate, starting with an almost legendary 3.4% and now in some cases diminishing it to the level of a bad flu season.
It’s the scientific worldview that is keeping healthy people in quarantine for the first time in history, then pretending that there is good scientific evidence for such drastic measure. (Hint: there isn’t.)
And, perhaps not surprisingly, it is the scientific worldview that has deemed worship as non-essential, while liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries remain open.
And so, those of us who are paying attention are waking up to the fact that the more we focus exclusively on our minds, the less we think about our hearts. What are the results? Even before the pandemic, many of us had lost the ability to see the beautiful in the world, stuck in our chosen ideologies and points of view, battering those who disagree with us into submission to our will. Our world is no longer enchanted as it was when we were children. The magic is gone. For many of us, so is the joy.
“Only he who worships at the altar of facts and has lost the ability to contemplate a state of being ignores fairy tales. Only he who wants to see with his physical eyes alone, plucking out his spiritual eyes in the process, considers the fairy tale to be dead.
Fine. Let’s call the fairy tale simplistic. But it is at least modest in its simplicity. And for its modesty, we forgive it its stupidity. After all, it takes courage to be so simple! The fairy tale doesn’t hide its inaccuracies. It isn’t ashamed of its simplicity. It’s not afraid of strict questions and mocking smiles.
Fairy tales are not fabrications or tall tales, but poetic illumination, essential reality, even the beginning of all philosophy. Fairy tales don’t become obsolete if we lose the wisdom to live by them. No, it is we who have perverted our emotional and spiritual culture. And we will dissipate and die off if we lose our access to these tales.
What is this access to fairy tales? What must we do to make the fairy tale, like the house on chicken feet, ‘turn its back to the forest and face us?’ How can we see it and live by it, how can we illuminate its prophetic depth and make clear its true spiritual meaning?” 3
Spiritual meaning, really? Talking about wolves and houses on chicken feet and wimpy princes crying on tree stumps? What is Ilyin talking about? He’s talking about a different way of relating to the world.
“For this, we must not cling to the sober mind of the daylight consciousness with all its observations, its generalizations, its ‘laws of nature.’ The fairy tale sees something other than daylight consciousness. It sees other things and in other ways. The story itself is already art. It conceals and reveals in its words an entire world of images, and these images symbolize profound spiritual states.” 2
Spiritual realities transcend what we can see or explain in words, and yet we know they exist. In the same way, we know that when we look at a waterfall what we see is sublime, not simply water flowing downward onto rocks. We know it in the moment we fall in love with our newborn child, even though the second before that child didn’t yet fully exist. These realities, the ones that we actually live for, are best expressed in metaphors, in images, in symbols. In other words, in stories.
“It is a kind of art similar to myths and songs. It comes from the same place as dreams, premonitions, and prophecies. This is why the birth of a story is at the same time artistic and magical. It not only tells a story, but it sings it into being. And the more a fairy tale sings, the easier it enters the soul, and the stronger is its magical force to calm, order, and illumine the soul. The fairy tale comes from the same source as the songs of mages, with their commanding power. This is why stories repeat phrases and images so often.” 4
After all, Christ himself, reaching down to the level of his fallen creation, told the most compelling truths in the most compelling way: by parables and symbols.
“The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning… Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.” 5
Now, more than ever, we need to step away from the “heady materialism of our youth.” 6 We need to recognize that our worldviews tend to be flat and boring, not made better by our excessive reliance on the ever-shifting truths of science.
I’ll prove it to you. Who are the people most disturbed by the current crisis? If you pay attention, I think you’ll notice that it’s the people who are quoting the latest scientific breakthrough in the battle against the virus. That’s because “science” can’t make up its mind, constantly contradicting itself as the information it tries to process shifts under its feet with ever-new inputs of information, much of which is inherently contradictory. No vaccine will solve that problem.
Who are the people with the most hope? They are the ones who have already told the story of their own life to themselves, a story that is stronger than temporary diseases. In some cases, the story is stronger than death.
To get to that point, we need to quiet our minds and make time for simple fairy tales. That’s what I’m here to help you do, here in the Symbolic World. Come along for the ride, if you wish.
- Ivan Ilyin, “The Spiritual Meaning of Fairy Tales.” Foundations of Christian Culture, at 41. Waystone Press, 2019
- Ilyin. Foundations. at 44
- Ilyin. Foundations. at 45
- J.R. R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. at 15. HarperCollins, 1997
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Acceptance Speech” quoted in Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe. at 1. ISI Books, 2014